LIKE many women, Jean McCracken found it challenging to rebuild her self-esteem and self-image following a mastectomy.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2009, the Banbridge mother-of-three swiftly underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
“It really wasn’t easy. They discovered that I had a very rare form of cancer, which meant totally different treatments to those normal breast cancer patients would undergo.
“Losing my hair after the chemo was the most difficult thing, it was just horrible. Once the hair was gone it was actually OK, but it was when it was falling out that I found it hardest to cope. You just feel so abnormal. I got a lot of nice wigs and went darker than I was.
The other thing that was so hard was the complete fatigue that came with chemotherapy. People talk about tiredness but this is a whole new level of tiredness. You just experience this complete lack of energy. Rest was always the priority.”
The experience caused Jean, who worked in community children’s nursing for 32 years, to re-evaluate her life; she decided to respond to what she saw as a gap in the market - a lack of underwear shops catering to women who have undergone surgery for breast cancer.
“Nursing was great, I really enjoyed it. But being off sick I started thinking. I’d always wanted to own my own business and something as simple as buying a bra after my surgery was very difficult. I thought how nice it would be for women who had undergone mastectomies to be able to go somewhere nice where people are sympathetic and understand, get fitted, and get a bra that feels right and gives you confidence.”
Jean signed up to the Go For It business guidance programme and then made contact with lingerie representatives.
“It all fell into place and we had the official opening in June 2011. It’s just been an incredible journey.”
Azizi Lingerie at Vic Rynn opened in Lisburn and expanded to include a store in Newry too.
Jean’s personal experiences give her, obviously, particular expertise in assisting the breast cancer survivors who visit her stores.
“Having a mastectomy was very traumatic,” Jean reflects. “Many women feel that they are not ‘real’ women anymore. I felt very low. But then I thought, well, if I have the right kind of bra that makes me look normal, who else sees me? I can dress and look just as good as the next person and nobody knows unless I tell them. Some people still struggle inwardly with trying to maintain their sense of femininity, but I do think that getting a correctly fitted bra plays an important part in feeling better about yourself post-mastectomy.
“This is about giving women who are at their most vulnerable a confidence boost and I think this is an important part of the breast cancer recovery process.”
Jean is now in remission and is delighted by the simple things, like being able to swish her thick hair from side to side.
“It makes me sound childish, but just being able to do that makes me so happy.
“I think going through the whole experience of cancer and then going into remission has made me appreciate my life more. You have a better sense of gratitude for the little things. I appreciate having my family around me so much. But it also made me sit up and say, ‘What do I want to do for the rest of my life?’
“I wanted to help women who have been through similar experiences. I know how hard it can be to get your confidence back after breast cancer.”
Azizi stocks a full range of mastectomy wear, as well as all the usual underwear staples. A correctly fitting bra, in Jean’s opinion, should be a priority for breast cancer survivors wanting to improve their sense of body image.
“It makes such a difference - to any woman - to get a correctly fitting bra. It enhances your shape. Your underwear sets the foundation for the rest of your outfit.
“It’s about making the most of what you’ve got.”
Azizi Lingerie holds special mastectomy and nursing bra fitting days once a month - something which has proved very popular with customers.
“Women put up with things when they don’t need to,” adds Jean. “Lingerie is a bit like life. If you get the basics, the foundations right, everything is easier. It’s great being able to offer a better range of bras to women post-surgery.
“Fitting women is an intimate thing and we want to put them at their ease. I want women to know and feel their worth.”
n Azizi Lingerie, House of Vic Ryn, Moira Road, Lisburn (02892 622 324) and 1A Kildare Street, Newry (02830 260 586).